Look who leads the AFC North: those 2-0 Bengals
By JOE KAY
CINCINNATI (AP) A few hours after a Thursday night loss to the Texans left them 0-2 last season, the Bengals made a decision that amounted to reversing field. They fired coordinator Ken Zampese and elevated Bill Lazor to interim leader of the offense.
One year later, the offense is a whole lot different. Following Lazor's new script - and an overhauled offensive line - the Bengals are 2-0 with their 34-23 win over AFC North rival Baltimore on Thursday night. Andy Dalton threw four touchdown passes, and the Bengals became the first team to score at least 34 points in their first two games since the 2013 Broncos, according to ESPN Stats & Info.
Those Broncos went to the Super Bowl and lost to Seattle. These Bengals are getting accustomed to being in first place in their division.
"I'm loving it, and I'm sure everyone else is loving it," said Tyler Boyd, who had a 14-yard touchdown catch .
The offense suffered its first notable injuries on Thursday night. Running back Joe Mixon hurt his right knee in the first quarter and was in-and-out of the game. His agent, Peter Schaffer, said Friday that Mixon will have a procedure to remove a loose particle from the knee and will be back "in less than two weeks."
Mixon finished with 84 yards rushing and one catch for 3 yards. Mixon said the knee felt "weird" and was sore, but he decided to return to the game.
Otherwise, the Bengals were feeling good coming off their second straight impressive win set up by the offense's turnaround from a year ago.
Cincinnati had its streak of five straight playoff appearances broken in 2016, and got off to an 0-3 start last year that led to another losing record. Marvin Lewis received a two-year extension, but there were changes in the rest of the coaching staff.
Lazor was elevated from interim coordinator and spent the offseason rewriting the playbook. In the first two games, he's leaned more heavily on Mixon both as a runner and receiver. He's moved Dalton out of the pocket on misdirection plays. And he's put the emphasis on going for big plays, something that was missing last year.
Dalton has looked very comfortable in the new schemes. He's completed 64 percent of his throws with six touchdowns, one interception, two sacks and a passer rating of 108.5. Lazor's approach allows him to do what he does best: get rid of the ball quickly in a fast-paced, West Coast offense.
So far, he looks more like he did in 2015, when he led the AFC with a 106.3 passer rating.
"The way Bill is calling it and what we're doing has been great," Dalton said. "We can spread the ball around and get a lot of guys involved. I think that's where this offense is fortunate."
An upgraded line has made it possible. The line was a huge problem last season, unable to open holes for the running game or give Dalton time. With four new starters, the line has allowed only two sacks - none against the Ravens - and provided some lanes for Mixon, who is averaging 4.7 yards per carry.
Last year, the offense failed to score a touchdown while losing the first two games to Baltimore and Houston, putting their season on a bad course.
"Those two games defined us as a team," said receiver A.J. Green, who had a career-high three touchdown catches on Thursday, all in the first half.
Some players think the 2-0 start could come to define this year's team. The Bengals are 2-0 for only the fifth time in Lewis' 16 seasons. The last time was 2015, when they won the division title and suffered a first-round playoff meltdown against Pittsburgh at Paul Brown Stadium.
"Yep, we're 2-0!" cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick said. "Yeah, we're special."
PRICE, JOHNSON EXPECTED BACK
Rookie center Billy Price strained his right foot when it was stepped on in the first quarter. Defensive end Michael Johnson hurt his left knee and missed the last three quarters. Lewis said Friday that neither injury is severe.
DANCING TO THE MUSIC
Kirkpatrick hosted a pregame party at a nursing home in suburban Loveland. Video of 95-year-old Irma Shafer dancing with Kirkpatrick was shared on social media and became a popular tweet among Bengals fans after the win over Baltimore.
More AP NFL: https://apnews.com/tag/NFL and https://twitter.com/AP-NFL
Updated September 14, 2018